This Isn’t a Problem that Can Be Blamed on Somebody Else: Talking to James Forman, Jr.

By Andy Fitch 

This conversation, conducted this summer, and transcribed by Phoebe Kaufman, focuses on James Forman, Jr.’s Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America. After graduating from Yale Law School and clerking for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Forman joined the Public Defender Service in Washington, D.C., representing juveniles and adults in felony and misdemeanor cases. Forman loved his work as a public defender, but quickly became frustrated with the lack of education and job-training opportunities for his clients. In 1997, along with David Domenici, Forman started the Maya Angelou Public Charter School, for students who had dropped out of preceding schools and/or been arrested. Since 2011, Forman has taught at Yale Law School, offering, for instance, a seminar titled “Inside-Out Prison Exchange: Issues in Criminal Justice,” which brought together, in the same classroom, 10 Yale Law students and 10 men incarcerated in a Connecticut prison. Locking Up Our Own, Forman’s first book, has been longlisted for the National Book Award and the American Librarian Association’s Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence, and shortlisted for the Stephen Russo Book Prize for Social Justice. You can connect with Forman via Twitter (@JFormanJr) and through his website, which includes a list of upcoming speaking events.


ANDY FITCH: Recent responses to your book often take Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow as a central point of reference, and I’ll want to discuss such comparisons. Though in terms of you outlining histories of social transformation catalyzed not by some streamlined decision-making process (but rather by an infinitude of micro-decisions made by millions of discrete individuals), or in terms of you patiently sifting through the documentary record of a not-so-distant past to sketch the convoluted trajectory by which Civil Rights Era leaders and broader public constituencies ended up in fact calling for mass incarceration (alongside related stop-and-frisk strategies, and tough-on-crime measures), as one form of bringing some legal fairness and police protection to black communities, I can’t help thinking of counterintuitive Foucaultian argumentation, and of potential source texts such as Discipline and Punish. At the same time, for one quite different-sounding logic shaping Locking Up Our Own’s narrative, I also detect a lighter, more localized, yet undeniably redemptive arc. In a book mostly lacking straightforward heroes and villains, Judge “Curtis Walker,” for example, comes across as pretty unsympathetic antagonist in your introduction, but ends up contributing to your epilogue’s (admittedly anecdotal) positive outcome — with Judge Walker even offering some hard-earned helpful advice along the way. And at the fulcrum of this redemptive pivot we find one otherwise uncelebrated, hardworking, fundamentally decent and ever self-refining figure, “Jeremy Thomas,” who, in classic Christian fashion, puts the brakes on tit-for-tat vengeance — a figure who discovers, through his own victimization, not the justifications for default, depersonalized state-sponsored retribution, but the vulnerabilities, the humanity, of his attacker. So again, I’ll want to talk through potential frictions between epistemic self-scrutiny and altruistic religious impulse circulating across this book. But first, to flesh out more fully the experiential parameters of the narrative you provide, what additional registers (or sustained, yet so far unrecognized points of reference) should our discussion include from the start?

JAMES FORMAN JR.: Well one book that I found very powerful, especially for its structure, was Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy. I read Bryan’s book in the middle of writing my own, and I found compelling how he wove history and argument together with personal stories from his clients and from cases he had litigated, and also from his own life. I knew I wanted more history and more argument than he had, and somewhat less memoir. But reading his book pushed me to think about how you can make an intellectual contribution through stories — and not just by including some little vignettes, but by really embedding your argument in a series of stories.

One reason it was really important to have a character return at the end was that I wanted readers to be reminded of a person and a topic and a set of arguments that they had encountered early in the book. So I start off by talking about the battle to decriminalize marijuana in the late 1970s, and then I return to that, but the second time with a different outcome. Telling the history this way hopefully shows the reader that there has been a change in the conversation in African American communities, and I also think in the nation, over the past 50 years, and in particular the last five or 10 years. We’re now more open to second chances. We’re more open to redemption. We’re asking harder questions about our commitment to longer sentencing as a solution to social problems.

And I also felt it was important to have an individual character who embodies that change, because this book emphasizes those micro-decisions you mentioned, and how we’re all complicit in some way. I mean, I don’t think the probation officer who revokes more aggressively, or the judge who gives the longer sentence, is as responsible as, say, President Reagan. But I do want to focus on the innumerable micro-decisions made over 50 years, across a system that we shouldn’t even call a “system” because it’s so decentralized and unsystematic. I want to show the individual agency involved. I want to show how yes, this judge is constrained by the larger society, constrained by larger rhetorics, constrained by media, constrained by racism, constrained by actions of the federal government — and yet, at the end of the day, he’s in court, and has in that moment a choice to make. He has the power to put people on probation and give them the opportunity to participate in a drug-treatment program or job-creating program, or he can lock them up. I want to show that judge’s individual responsibility for creating this system and also his individual capacity for resisting it.

That definitely speaks to your lived experience as a public defender. And guess I know a decent amount about your professional background, but less about your intellectual background, and your background as a writer How might this methodological emphasis upon narrativizing individual agency, for example, shape your thinking beyond any one particular social/legal/political topic?

Well I am indebted to the group of scholars referred to as Critical Race Theorists in law and across the disciplines, especially figures like Charles Lawrence and Mari Matsuda. I take from that school of thinking questions like: how you can tell your own stories, how can you elevate accounts taken from the real world (because you’ve seen these situations, because you’ve experienced them, because your clients have lived them), and how can those become part of an academic argument, part of an intellectual argument? These stories don’t by themselves form an argument, but they can inform your arguments, supplement your arguments, and bring a humanity to the academic account that is so important — especially since the perspectives of African Americans have never had their full, rightful share of the stage. I draw upon a tradition of scholars who, when they came up in the 80s, faced incredible hostility just for going into the legal academy and saying: “Here’s what I know to be true, because this happens to me, because this happens in black communities, and y’all aren’t paying attention to it, and you have created a set of legal rules that assumes these things don’t happen. You haven’t studied them. You haven’t analyzed them. So here we are presenting studies that you don’t consider academically credible, but we are telling you that this is happening.” I felt empowered and inspired by Critical Race Theory to bring my own voice into and onto the text. Not just in this book, but in all of my work. And I feel that the Black Lives Matter movement is doing something similar: thrusting and forcing those stories into public and national consciousness.

Locking Up Our Own does in part provide your personal story or perspective, but I find it equally distinctive that you tell so many different stories, from an empathic perspective so evenly distributed across this book — including  stories that could seem in opposition or antithetical to yours.

I was extremely self-conscious about that. From the very beginning, I had that story of Judge Walker and Brandon in my mind. I knew I wanted it at the opening. That story was the very first thing I wrote for the book. I always wanted to figure out what this judge was thinking, and I knew I couldn’t actually figure out what the judge was thinking. But trying to understand somebody doing something that infuriated me, trying to understand where he was coming from and why he thought that this approach made sense, helped to clarify the fact that, from every shred of evidence I could gather, many of these people acted with good intentions. Now I’m not saying I could or would want to write a book about our current attorney general’s views on crime and politics, and actually get into his head in that same way. But for the people I do write about (people like Eric Holder), it seems beyond any reasonable doubt that they cared deeply about the fate of the black community in these decisions they were making, even when they made decisions that I found (sometimes then, and sometimes in retrospect) to be wrong. Also, I just find it more interesting to try to figure out what people who disagree with me think, and why. I know what I think. I know what my friends think and why. But I’ve always liked this project of trying to understand — not “the other side,” that’s too clichéd, but the perspectives of people who at first seem incomprehensible to me.

Here maybe we also can bring in The New Jim Crow, in part to push back against what I consider inaccurate and unhelpful framings of your book that would characterize it as a refutation of Michelle Alexander’s widely read claims about the white-supremacist legacies and present-day cultural forces shaping a generational spike in incarceration rates for African Americans. And here I picture the commonplace (for myself as much as anyone else) 21st-century tendency to scroll past a newsfeed headline such as “Yale Legal Scholar and Son of Famous Civil Rights Activist Shows Blacks, Not Whites, Created Mass Incarceration,” and to presume that one has absorbed some verifiable social fact. I also recall a more longstanding tradition of patronizing white-liberal readership that allows for one authentic black spokesperson at a time (or, at best, for two contending would-be spokespersons to duke it out, leaving little room for argumentative, interpretive, creatively prescriptive nuance). So, still early into our conversation, could we stake out the vast swath of concerns on which you and Alexander and any number of Locking Up Our Own’s sometimes contentious figures might agree? I would expect, for example, relatively broad consensus that the primary cultural mechanisms to oppose include: a race-baiting public rhetoric that exploits perceived social difference to split political electorates and maintain present power structures; a persistence of white (and, at times, class-based African American) tolerance for the sufferings of more marginalized individuals summarily deemed deserving of punishment; an institutionalized cluster of race-based economic disparities able to sustain themselves through public inertia at this point, without much need for more overtly racialized aggression (though of course that persists too, even gaining traction over the past couple years). And similarly, you and Alexander often seem to agree on what did not happen, on what should have happened as drug usage and crime rates began rising in the 60s in African American communities: that the country should have treated these developments as symptoms (not causes) of national (not racialized) social dysfunction; that the U.S. should have devised something of a multipronged Marshall Plan for black America in response; but that, as African American leaders, in the post-Great Society era, called for a coordinated array of far-reaching reforms, the only changes that became politically viable involved punitive (not proactive) responses to increasingly ghettoized communities. Does that help at least to establish some aspects of broader intellectual consensus from which you see your book making its own pointed case?

So I’m disappointed that that’s the way you first encountered the book. I’m heartened that the published reviews I have seen have not made that argument. The first review of the book I became aware of was by Khalil Gibran Muhammad, the Harvard historian and former director of the Schomburg. He’s somebody who, in broad strokes, is sympathetic to The New Jim Crow argument. So when I saw his name on a review I thought: Oh, I wonder what he’s going to do with this. I was thrilled to see that somebody of his stature and deep intelligence just totally got the book. And early into the review, he basically asks people not to write that headline that you described.

Having said that, we live in a social-media world, and people do digest down to 140 characters, and recycle newsfeed headlines. I always worried about the book getting shared and encountered that way. There are two sentences you could utter about this book, and one would be true. One would say: “Yale legal scholar, son of famous civil-rights activist, shows blacks, not whites, created mass incarceration.” That would be the untrue summary. But you could also say: “Yale legal scholar and son of famous civil-rights activist shows how blacks helped to create mass incarceration.” That would be true, but this statement does nothing to undermine, refute, or diminish the role of white actors in creating mass incarceration. Instead, this sentence (especially when you then read the two or three sentences that would naturally follow it) says that mass incarceration was a society-wide project for the past 40 of 50 years, and many in the African American community came to conclude that some of these aggressive, draconian, punitive policies were beneficial. And I’m telling the story of how they came to see that, and along the way I’m pointing out why they and we were wrong to think that.

And then in terms of The New Jim Crow, my areas of agreement with Michelle Alexander are almost too numerous to count. Here are just a few: I don’t believe you can understand anything that’s happened in American history, and certainly nothing that’s happened with race in American history, without really dwelling on slavery and its impact on America — and, in particular, its impact on creating and sustaining a set of false narratives that have helped to justify all sorts of brutality against black people, including mass incarceration. If you just stop and think about the fact that we’ve had slavery in this country for longer than we’ve not had slavery (and that we’ve had slavery plus Jim Crow for about three times as long as we’ve had neither of those regimes), and then if you stop and think about what kinds of lies a society needs to tell itself to justify these forms of brutal racial oppression, then you start to realize how we have created a set of stories for ourselves that include things like: black people are criminal, and that’s why it’s appropriate for us to treat them this way; black people don’t feel pain like white people do, and that’s why it’s appropriate for us to treat them this way; black people don’t care about their children, which is why there’s nothing wrong with ripping black families apart at the auction block.

And those stores and those distortions don’t go away, probably ever, but certainly they don’t go away quickly, certainly not in the blink of the eye that has been American history since slavery and Jim Crow. So one starting, fundamental proposition I share with Michelle Alexander, with Bryan Stevenson, with Ta-Nehisi Coates, with James Baldwin, with a whole history of black writers who have faced up to and taken a look at this legacy, is how significantly slavery has shaped, informed, created, and defined American institutions, beliefs, and ideologies still with us today.

From there you can move into many other areas of overlap. There is no question, as lots of scholars have documented, that white politicians, that Republicans like Goldwater, like Nixon, like Reagan and all of their state and local contemporaries over the last 50 years, have exploited conversations about crime to drive a wedge in the Democratic party, and to invoke fears of black people at a time when it was no longer possible to talk so overtly about black people as the enemy.

And you also have to look at all of the overlapping societal forces like deindustrialization, like redlining, like usurious lenders stripping wealth out of black communities. Those structures and policies and practices created the American ghetto. They created communities without access to jobs, with underfunded and mismanaged schools, with failing public institutions, public libraries, public parks-and-rec departments that couldn’t provide proper afterschool programs for kids. They created communities where a sense of hopelessness begets selling drugs, begets resolving crises through acts of violence — because why wouldn’t you? Why not? And so all of that suggests a set of shared understandings.

And of course Michelle Alexander also describes African American community leaders themselves taking part in mass incarceration’s implementation. Even that is not a new topic of inquiry. But whereas The New Jim Crow might acknowledge that such complicity took place, Locking Up Our Own goes out of its way to contextualize the (no doubt flawed) ethical reflections that led people to such decisions. Here again your book’s empathic dexterity stands out. So for some differences in emphasis (less in argument) between Locking Up Our Own and The New Jim Crow, could we pivot further away from a perhaps emotionally galvanizing yet self-disempowering account of one monolithic, top-down, malevolent agent determining the present state of mass incarceration? Could you sketch the historical context for African American agency within public conversations regarding drug and crime prevention, particularly as Civil Rights Era activists and their immediate beneficiaries took on new social, political, professional roles as elected officials and prominent spokespersons, as public administrators and legal enforcers, as police officers and eventually commissioners? And could you begin to articulate the types of historical agency you seek to instill in your present-day readers by pointing to those countless (often quite understandable) micro-decisions, by a wide range of well-intentioned civic actors, which contributed cumulatively towards the entrenchment of mass-incarceration — all without any one individual along the way needing to feel “responsible” for causing such social catastrophe?

Maybe I’ll talk about one specific figure, because I think his narrative has a lot of present-day implications as well. I’m thinking of David Clarke, who in 1975 first gets elected to D.C.’s City Council. 11 of 13 City Council members are African American, and two are white. Clarke is one of the white members. He had gone to Harvard Law School. He had worked with Martin Luther King in the 60s. He had helped to organize the Poor People’s March in D.C., then had become a lawyer for “the little guy,” he said. And then, in part for his commitment to these racial-justice issues, he gets elected to this first City Council (which also includes people like Marion Barry). And Clarke is not a drug warrior. He fights hard for the decriminalization of marijuana in 1975. He loses, but he fights the fight.

But now it’s the early 1980s. He’s chair of the City Council, and heroin use, which had subsided in the city in the 1970s, has come back. Clarke and other City Council members begin to get deluged by letters from citizens saying things like: “There’s an addict sitting on my stoop. There’s an addict nodding off on my corner. There’s an addict sleeping in my backyard, and you gotta do something about it.” So Clarke sends these letters to the head of a relevant government agency. But who does he send the letters to? He doesn’t send them to the Department of Mental Health, the Department of Addiction Services, the Department of Drug Rehabilitation. He sends them to the police chief. He does that, my book argues, because even somebody who’s not a drug warrior lives in America, lives constrained by its imagination, and by the way that we Americans have come to think of the addict on the corner as a police problem, not as a person with a mental-health problem, with an addiction problem, with a need for treatment and counseling. And of course the police department itself has been funded much better than these other municipal agencies. The police department is understood as having the responsibility to address this problem. So Clarke both is constrained and is an actor. He’s limited, and he has agency. And similarly, the black community, as a community, was both constrained by larger structural forces and also had choices.

Those things are still true today. So when I go and speak to judges, I’ll talk to them about decisions like the ones Judge Walker had to make. And when I talk to citizens at book events, I’ll ask them about a set of choices and decisions that they make in their own lives. What kind of employment policies does your employer have towards returning citizens, towards people completing their sentences? What stance does your church, your synagogue, your temple, your mosque take towards adopting returning citizens coming back from prison and jail? Do we provide a sanctuary? Do we open ourselves to these individuals and help them connect to resources and to get on the Internet and apply for jobs? These are choices we get to make right now, in real time, to either ameliorate human suffering or to turn a blind eye to it. So I’m both pressing readers to understand this overlap of constraints, agency, and the historical process, and then reminding them of their and our collective opportunity to either remain constrained, or to push against those constraints — to use our agency in a direction of redemption, rehabilitation, humanity.

Again in terms of better understanding both our predecessors and ourselves as historical agents, I particularly appreciate Locking Up Our Own’s painstaking excavational work to help us see what such choices looked like and felt like for a preceding generation. We now may assume by default that anyone advocating strict sentencing specifically for crack possession must be driven by explicit or unconscious racist motivations. And we might leave it there, without taking into account contemporaneous civil-rights concerns with making communities of color as safe as white communities. So building on this sense of genealogical overturnings, in which any one particular individual or any one broader idea might pick up dramatically different “progressive” or “reactionary” valences in relatively quick succession, could you sketch the historical context in which, say, a Jim Crow-surviving D.C. community leader might promote mandatory-minimum sentencing on the premise of promoting fairness across racial categorizations, or in which gun control quickly shifts from suggesting white-supremacist social domination to suggesting a desperately desired municipal reform denied by hostile or indifferent white powerbrokers?

Gun control is a great example. It’s actually the area where a lot of liberals are still most likely to endorse longer prison sentences. But in the book, as you mention, I refer back to John Ray, a D.C. City Council member who grew up in Jim Crow Georgia. He’s aware of the history that most black people are aware of — the history of the underprotection of black lives, and the lack of punishment for those who harm black people. The Marshall Project, in a recent morning briefing, sent an email saying “Killings of Black Men by Whites are Far More Likely to be Ruled ‘Justifiable.’” That’s the first line of the story. So for people like Ray, when they consider mandatory sentencing in the 70s, against that history of under-enforcement, they say: “Imposing a mandatory sentence will not solve this problem entirely, but it will help, because regardless of the victim’s race, regardless of the perpetrator’s race, everybody will get equal treatment, every person convicted will get the same sentence.”

Of course we now know that’s not how it worked. We know now that mandatory minimums just shifted authority from judges to prosecutors, so that all of the same discriminatory patterns moved from judges’ hands into prosecutors’ hands. And we know now that these mandatory minimums added the terrible dimensions of making sentences longer, and of coercing people into accepting pleas. We now know that, but they didn’t know that in 1978! I’m not saying that nobody was making that counterargument. But I am saying that the weight of the evidence had not become as overwhelming as it has become since.

And we should pause to note again that this isn’t only a historical question. In September, the Baltimore City Council passed legislation to impose mandatory prison sentences for gun possession. That legislation was sponsored by many African American legislators in the city. Of course it’s opposed by other African American legislators. But again, to this very day there’s a heated debate, with the proponents arguing: “Well, we now have African American influence over this city’s prosecutor’s office, so we can have more faith that they will exercise their discretion fairly and not discriminate.” These arguments are just like the arguments you see in late-70s and early-80s D.C.

Well still on the topic here of genealogical overturnings in public discourse across the historical span you track, what has researching this book taught you specifically about recent trajectories for our concept of violence — a term which, depending on one’s perspective, could evoke the most concrete, individual, empirically verifiable act, or could imply, say, the more abstracted economic implications of how selling illicit drugs leads to others harming themselves and committing further crimes, or how buying illegal drugs funds further encroachments upon public space? How, according to various points of view played out across several generations, might one differentiate most constructively between criminal (in the legalistic sense) drug use and violence? And then, more specifically, how have gun-possession laws distorted our sense of labeling, tracking, punishing violence — all the way to current progressive attempts to distinguish nonviolent from violent inmates?

That’s an important part of the book. Drug users and drug sellers have become the paradigm when we talk about nonviolent offenders. And that’s an excellent development. It’s progress. Many people deserve credit for it, including Michelle Alexander. It’s strikingly different from how many public figures (including parts of the black community) described things in the middle of the crack years in the 1980s. My book quotes Albert Herring, then an African American prosecutor in D.C., who makes the case that prosecuting people for crack possession helps to stop violence in that city. He says: “When I think back to my days as a prosecutor in The District of Columbia, when I think back to those days where the murder rate was above 400; when I think back to the days when…mothers were burying their children faster than funeral homes could schedule appointments, I am quite convinced — as convinced as I am grown, black and free — that there was not a single rock of crack anywhere in the District of Columbia that wasn’t strained with the blood of some mother’s child.” He goes on to say that anyone who participates at any point in this distribution chain picks up that moral responsibility.

Herring was not alone. In D.C. in the late 80s it’s crack. In Los Angeles, a few years earlier, it was PCP. I quote an editorial from the Los Angeles Sentinel, that city’s largest black paper, published in September 1980, entitled “An Open Letter to PCP Dealers and Other Dogs.” This editorial says that PCP dealers are: “guilty of murder, rape, theft, robbery, matricide, patricide, fratricide, and every other crime committed by any human being under the influence of PCP.” Because PCP users themselves committed wild and flagrant crimes, the Sentinel says that PCP dealers are responsible for these crimes. And therefore, they say, dealers “will have to stand before a tribunal for your crimes. It will not be a court of law. There will be no prosecutor or defense attorney. And there will be no official sentencing date, nor will there be a probation department report. The community has already judged you guilty and the only thing left is for the sentence to be carried out.” That sentence might include being “tarred and feathered, burned at the stake, castrated, and any other horrendous thing which can be imagined.” Then this editorial gets signed: “the Los Angeles Sentinel and the rest of the black community.” Of course they’re not speaking for everybody, but they claim they are. So here you have them directly rejecting the idea that drug dealing is a nonviolent crime. Not only is it violent — it’s something you should be punished harshly for.

Of course with these Los Angeles Sentinel editors, with Albert Herring, with Hassan Jeru-Ahmed (the D.C. black nationalist who leads his street brigade of former incarcerated men against drug dealers in that city), all say: “We know black people aren’t growing these drugs, and we know black people aren’t bringing them into America, and we know black people aren’t even bringing them to the neighborhood. But we are the ones on the corner. You do not see a white person standing there selling the drug, and that black person you do see selling the drug is morally culpable, and we’re mad as hell at them. We’re mad at these other people, too, but being mad at the Colombian grower or even at the C.I.A. — none of that diminishes the culpability of this person standing on the corner.” 

I hope by now we have begun to convey the astonishing nature of recent historical phenomena you track. If not: I picture Jesse Jackson, at Birmingham Jail in 1995, telling a prisoner wearing a Martin Luther King T-shirt that “If he’s your hero, you wouldn’t be here,” and making her cry. Again I find such scenes less instructive about Jesse Jackson’s personal foibles than about how strikingly social norms have shifted. But at a historical moment when many self-declared progressives seem to have grown less tolerant of, say, a fellow citizen failing to accept their apparently fair, self-evident, logically unimpeachable (and thus presumably endurable) claims, or tend to consider their conservative counterparts perversely inclined towards inept, cherry-picking, self-deluding conceptual frameworks, what has researching this book helped you to discover about how related perversities shape progressive conversations (not to draw any moral equivalency here: conservatives remain, to my mind, much more dismally deluded on any number of topics)?

So I don’t know if I have much to say at that meta-level you’re describing. I wasn’t that surprised by this stuff, because I became a public defender in ‘94. I had been thinking about these issues since the late 80s. The period when Jesse Jackson would have said something like that was a period when I was paying attention to what African American political leaders were saying about these topics. And in terms of how progressives make their case, when I think about the implications of the book, it’s a couple of levels less theoretical. One of the major takeaways is how this isn’t a problem that can be blamed on somebody else. Yes, certain figures are especially villainous and deserve more than their current share of blame. But it’s also true that many, many people in many cities, many states, many pockets of the country considering themselves beyond reproach, were complicit — some more actively, some more energetically, while others just closed their eyes and didn’t see what was happening.

So I may be talking to a mostly white audience in San Francisco, let’s say. For them, this particular story of black political leadership might be intellectually interesting, though it’s not the story of San Francisco politics, with that city’s tiny and diminishing African American population. Still those audiences need to face the broader conclusion that many communities, including people we might not immediately think of as responsible, were in fact responsible. So whether I’m on the west side of Los Angeles, or in Cambridge Massachusetts, or Ann Arbor, or Austin or wherever, when you actually start to look at the numbers, and to ask more localized questions (about the school-to-prison pipeline, about zero-tolerance policies in schools), you get to school board and city council decisions. You realize that if San Francisco has a problem (and it does), then that’s not just Jeff Sessions’ fault, or Pete Wilson’s fault, or Arnold Schwarzenegger’s fault, or even Jerry Brown’s fault. It’s the fault and responsibility of the mostly liberal, progressive, Democratic political leadership in that jurisdiction. That’s one major implication of this book, even though it’s not explicitly stated much, and even if the book begins and ends by discussing African American political leadership.

So if a 22-year-old student of yours committed to public activism said she just read your book, and now felt the need to disown a whole generation of self-declared progressive leadership (African American and otherwise), how would you respond to this person who did not live through these experiences, who feels compelled to read history as the search for people to endorse and people to reject — and therefore feels the need to reject Locking Up Our Own’s principle figures?

I would tell the student that my book contains lots of people she could admire as well. Every battle I describe in this book is contested. Whether the topics is gun laws or marijuana decriminalization or mandatory minimums, there were people arguing for a less punitive stance. They lost, but they fought the good fight. Some African American leaders in 1975 said we should decriminalize marijuana, despite the fact that we’d had a heroin epidemic in the 60s. In 1980, 1981, the NAACP and the Urban League both came out in opposition to mandatory minimums. There was at least one lonely voice on the D.C. Council, Robert Wilkins, now a federal judge on the D.C. circuit, who opposed pretext policing, and said that Eric Holder’s Operation Ceasefire was going to lead to racial profiling.

Of course one reads a book with emotions, and doesn’t assimilate content as equanimously as one could. So when I think of Locking Up Our Own, I can recall instances of you acknowledging the presence of opposing voices and countervailing institutions, but those don’t factor much into my overall takeaway (again, here pointing to the narrowness of my takeaway, not to you failing to deliver such examples). I don’t picture these debates tending 52% one way, 48% the other way, with some executive left to make a difficult decision. And I mention this simply to say that I admire your bold expectation that readers will arrive at a lucid, nuanced sifting-through of this book’s complex historical narrative.

Yeah you’re right. I hear your point. There might have been more emphasis on the contested nature of these responses in my last answer than in what comes through on the page. You can only ask a reader to absorb so many “But, on the other hands.” People just start to put the book down. So there might be times when I present some of that opposition in a less than fully fleshed-out way. I’ll acknowledge it, maybe with a paragraph or two, but it would have taken 14 pages in a 30-page chapter to get closer to your 48%. So I don’t think that’s your distorted reading. I think it’s a fair reading of the way I ended up emphasizing the winners. It’s commonly said about history. That’s who gets the emphasis.

From my end, I’d add that even when material does get presented in even-handed fashion on the page, that doesn’t mean we necessarily read it this way. A certain paragraph might startle us, make us rethink things, redirect our attention.

That’s fair, too. The Urban League opposed mandatory minimums in 1981, but you might skim over this fact because you know today the Urban League opposes mandatory minimums.

More broadly then, if we now can note that a polarized left-right divide perhaps unwittingly established a false and unproductive late-20th-century conceptual dichotomy in which political leaders felt the need to choose between reducing poverty or protecting citizens from criminality, what equivalent false dichotomies do you sense us all unproductively reinforcing today?

Two topics that I believe deserve much more close attention, disciplined focus, creative analysis, are homelessness and the child-welfare system. I’m spending the year in Oakland, and when you drive under any underpass in this city — it’s a cliché to say this, but there is a way in which it feels like: Can this be the United States? When I’m traveling in incredibly poor countries, countries with little solid infrastructure, with no tax base, no ability to deal with grotesque inequality and poverty, you see people living under bridges. But you also see that right here. You could get off any highway and see encampments. And when I ask what’s going on, people here are like, “Well the foreclosure crisis…” I hear a few buzzwords, but I don’t sense that anybody has begun to get a grip on what we actually need to do in response.

And then for the child-welfare system, there was a recent op-ed in the Times by a woman who runs the Bronx Defenders, where she talks about how in New York City, during this progressive de Blasio administration, the child-welfare agency just keeps taking kids away from families. She says that this agency’s operations are completely governed by the one or two cases where a child ends up dead, and everybody (including the New York Times) runs a front-page story asking how could this child have slipped through the cracks. It reminds me of the Willie Horton narrative, of how these brutal crimes create this fear in politicians. So then on the other side of the equation, kids get taken away from their families before anybody provides adequate resources and support to try to keep these families whole. And I bet you would find that this New York City child-welfare administration is 99% Democratic, is a decent percentage people of color (not majority, but also not a vanishing minority), is a lot of self-identified progressives doing things with a spirit of goodwill and good intentions — protecting kids in the same way that the people in my book are protecting communities. The choices they’re making might end up being very damaging to the community. But again they’re constrained by resources in the same way that people in my book are. So I think telling that story could possibly wake us up as a nation, and also shake up some assumptions about both who’s to blame and how we need to respond.

Just as you describe this child-welfare concern, I go back to how, with mass incarceration, one can point to the legal, political, economic, infrastructural legacies of slavery and ask: how could somebody fail to see a pattern and direct correlation here? But so long as we can easily tolerate families of color getting split apart, one could ask the exact same thing.

I think that’s right. And again, more pieces need to be written about ways in which the lies that we have told ourselves as a society to justify slavery have embedded themselves really deeply into our present consciousness.

To close then on the historical present, if we take your persuasive case that both left and right long ago should have reconceived of illicit-drug addiction as primarily a public-health epidemic, rather than as a crisis of criminality, could we pivot to our present so-called opioid crisis and its potential implications/applications for your argument? First, I probably should add that just this Latinate, medicalized term “opioid” (contrasted, let’s say, to the more lurid “crack”) hints at an extreme hypocrisy with which mainstream discourse differentiates between the ethics of depicting drug addiction in largely white communities versus drug addiction in communities of color. I probably should note the stark distinction between how American society continues to institutionalize, normalize, domesticate the illicit-drug economy within one sociological context (relegating it to the privacy of the doctor’s office), even while further ghettoizing, criminalizing, publicly exacerbating this drug economy’s impact within others — declaring “wars” in communities of color across the U.S. and across the hemisphere. But as a case study perhaps in your more forgiving rhetorical approach, what most positive aspects of this recent turn towards reframing drug addiction in public-health terms might you seek to build upon, and how could current public conversations centered on, say, rural Appalachian and exurban Rust Belt communities most constructively redirect themselves to addressing also the pressing needs of urban black communities?

Of course you’re right that we have two different languages about this. In response to the opioid crisis, nobody’s proposing anything like the mandatory minimums we saw coming out of Congress in the 1980s. There’s a much more compassionate rehabilitation-and-treatment focus to the conversation. There’s more framing of it as a public-health conversation than was ever true in the crack years. That I think can be explained overwhelmingly by racial differences. There is also a small component of this for which you could say that there isn’t the same violence associated with drug markets today, and that’s true. You don’t have that struggle for control of the markets producing so much violence. But again, as you point out, the biggest difference here also has to do with the racial dynamic.

Having said that, I do consider it worth noting that although we are less brutal towards poor white people than we are towards poor black people in this country, we’re still plenty mean to poor white people. You see good evidence of that in the president’s budget, or in all of the Republican congressional proposals around health care. These proposals would specifically, concretely, and directly disrupt or destroy treatment programs that those working-class and poor white people depend on to recover from their opioid addiction. So it’s true that we’re more willing to talk about treatment than we were 30 years ago, but it’s also true that it’s still, in many ways, a bait and switch. It’s run on “We care about you and we’re going to do something about it,” but it’s governed on “We’re going to eliminate the programs you depend upon for your survival and health.”

In terms though of some good that can come out of this mess, there’s an organization out of Seattle that promotes its work nationally, called LEAD: Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion. Their website ( shows all the different cities they’re in. They’re trying to take this precise moment when the nation is a bit more willing to think about alternatives to incarceration, and to make sure that this expanded concern includes communities of color. LEAD is saying, “okay, let’s use this opportunity to take a radically different, more treatment-oriented approach, a more public-health-oriented approach, and let’s actually enlist law enforcement in helping to create those programs.” It’s amazing. I’ve visited and spent time on the ground in Seattle. I’ve seen what they’re doing, and I think that’s one good example of your point about how to seize this opportunity.

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